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Debris From Irma Makes Wildfires More Likely In The Keys. State Forest Service Wants To Stop Them.

A fire on Big Pine Key in April consumed dozens of acres and one structure.
Cammy Clark
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

With lots of rain and high humidity over the summer, Big Pine Key has not seen a repeat of last spring's wildfire that consumed dozens of acres. And the state forest service is trying to keep it that way.

The fire last April consumed dozens of acres and destroyed one structure. It was fueled by the dead vegetation left behind by Hurricane Irma, which crossed the Lower Keys as a Category 4 hurricane in September of 2017.

"Normally our fires down here are a tenth of an acre. Maybe half of an acre is a big one," said Scott Peterich, fire mitigation specialist and spokesman for the Florida Forest Service Everglades district.

"Seventy-two acres is scary," Peterich said. "And one of the reasons it got that big was because of a lot of the dead vegetation."

Big Pine Key is a rural area, home to the National Key Deer Refuge. It's also a community of about 5,000 people, with homes and businesses interspersed with land owned by the federal, state and county governments.

Along with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the refuge, the state forest service plans to mow a "mosaic" pattern of firebreaks that will stop any future fires from spreading - and allow access for firefighters and equipment.

"We're asking to come in closer to the homes to where there's dead vegetation five feet away and just reduce some of that so if a fire's coming, then we can get an engine in there and do structure protection," Peterich said.

Peterich said if the forest service will not work on private property without the owner's permission.

"Our biggest concern is public safety," he said. "We don't like losing homes. What you see going out West, losing 4, 5 and 600 homes and people homeless — that is not acceptable with us."

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Nancy Klingener covers the Florida Keys for WLRN. Since moving to South Florida in 1989, she has worked for the Miami Herald, Solares Hill newspaper and the Monroe County Public Library.